With most of the planned symphony cycles to mark Beethoven’s 250th anniversary lying in tatters, long abandoned to the pandemic, orchestras are scouring the byways of Ludwig’s back catalogue for more unusual fare. Thankfully, social distancing requirements mean that the Choral Fantasy and Wellington’s Victory – clunkers both – won’t be appearing any time soon, but that does leave room for a distinct oddity: a Beethoven ballet. Next month, the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony programme The Creatures of Prometheus, but both were pipped to the post by the Berlin Philharmonic under Marc Minkowski.

Marc Minkowski and the Berlin Philharmonic © Berliner Philharmoniker
Marc Minkowski and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Berliner Philharmoniker

Prometheus wasn’t Beethoven’s first ballet. His Ritterballett (Knights’ Ballet), composed in 1791, was ghost-written for Count Waldstein to pass off as his own. But ten years later, with ballet a popular entertainment in Vienna, Beethoven was commissioned to create the score for a ballet with mime, choreographed by Salvatore Viganó, on the theme of Prometheus. No copy of the original programme survives and few of the numbers have titles, but we do know that in the short Act 1, Prometheus – pursued by angry gods having stolen their fire – comes across two clay statues: human beings in a state of ignorance which he animates. In Act 2, he takes them to Parnassus to receive tuition in the Arts from Apollo: Orpheus teaches them music; Melpomene and Thalia tragedy and comedy; Terpsichore dance. From Bacchus they learn invention.   

Marc Minkowski © Berliner Philharmoniker
Marc Minkowski
© Berliner Philharmoniker

Apart from its overture – given slightly too portentous a start here – and the Allegretto finale (which later provided the theme to the Eroica Symphony’s fourth movement), it’s not familiar music. A lot of the 17 numbers don’t even sound like Beethoven. There are moments which seem indebted to Gluck, a Sturm und Drang tempest that wouldn’t sound amiss in a Haydn symphony, and the fifth number – the only time Beethoven employed a harp in an orchestral context – has Mozartian grace. It was this Adagio–Andante quasi Allegretto movement which allowed several Berlin principals to shine, including Bruno Delepelaire (cello), Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp) and Emmanuel Pahud (flute). The Solo della Signora Casentini put the basset horn (Manfred Preis) into the spotlight. 

Bruno Delepelaire © Berliner Philharmoniker
Bruno Delepelaire
© Berliner Philharmoniker

Despite a large string contingent, Minkowski drew quite a lean sound from the Berliners, masquerading effectively as HIPsters in a lithe performance. Tempi were swift and Minkowski’s excitable baton technique did not always lead to precision, but this was a welcome chance to hear a pleasant score.

Maintaining the Promethean theme, Haydn’s Symphony no. 59 in A major “Fire” had opened the concert. Its nickname apparently does not derive from its Presto opening, despite sizzling nicely here, but because several of its themes were used in incidental music to Gustav Großmann’s play Die Feuersbrunst (The Conflagration). The Berlin strings tucked into the outer movements, the oboes refined, the horns house-trained and never boisterous, in a performance that zipped along amiably, if hardly setting the evening alight.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall video stream.

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